Waiting to Watch

The Story of Starwatch by Jack Kibble-White

First published August 1999

The climate for cult TV has probably never been better. The BBC not only reruns Space 1999 and episodes of those dull Star Trek spin-offs but in recent years there’s been quite a few new sci-fi programmes on our screens: Bugs, Neverwhere, Crime Traveller, Invasion Earth and Ultraviolet. And there’s promise of a new Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and mumblings about a Doctor Who film – or something or other. Meanwhile satellite TV chews over yet more Star Treks on Sky, Doctor Whos on UK Gold and, well of course, we’ve got the Sci-Fi Channel churning out whatever it churns out. How different then, 10 years ago.

In 1989, Doctor Who was drawing to the end of its prolonged demise. Terrestrial TV’s cult quota consisted of the aforementioned Time Lord, The Chronicles of Narnia, Red Dwarf and the embarrassing touchy-feely Beauty and the Beast. It was to be the year of the satellites, and we waited expectantly for BSB and Sky to deliver on their promises and open the archives. It was in this unlikely climate that word began to spread about a new television drama: Starwatch made by, and starring the cream of British telefantasy.

Starwatch, or (Sentinel as it was sometimes referred to) was the brainchild of former Thames Children’s Department writer Chris Leach and friend, Mark Jones, and was to be produced by their own company Penvellan Productions. Originally conceived as a Gerry Anderson puppet series, Leach came to believe that the ideas he wished to explore were too rich for such a format. Leach and Jones parted company with Anderson and took their idea and Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee (their only firm bits of casting) with them.

Leach was a huge fan of Doctor Who and had even (unsuccessfully) submitted scripts in the late ’70s. This influence was to be felt throughout his plans for Starwatch. Who stalwarts Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks (producer and script editor respectively during the Pertwee years – Leach: “I consciously remembered the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who years as excellent on television”) were offered equivalent roles. However, as Dicks pointed out, their involvement was “actually really very minimal in the sense that Chris Leach, worked it all out. Chris then got in touch with Barry who went to see him and said ‘Really there’s not much I can do for you because you’ve decided most of what you want to do.’” What he wanted to do was create an action-adventure series aimed squarely at both the family audience and the telefantasy fans.

Set in the 21st Century, the central premise concerned a giant crystal buried deep below Stonehenge. This crystal was the very essence of the Earth – its “Sentinel”. One of many scattered throughout the universe, it had begun to mysteriously malfunction. Project Unicorn an ecological group led by the charismatic but ageing Jason Havlin (Pertwee) would head the battle to save the Sentinel and thus prevent the destruction of planet Earth.

Patrick Troughton had been earmarked for the role of Professor Caledon (who discovers the Sentinel and brings its plight to the attention of Havlin). However, after his death, Robert Gillespie (of Keep it in the Family and Survivors fame) was cast in the role. Leach described Caledon as an “enigmatic character” and one cannot help but think of the similarities between Caledon and the Doctor. Both possess academic titles, high intelligence, and an element of otherworldliness. In fact at the end of the first series, we were to discover that Caledon was immortal. Other characters, however, betrayed the show’s Anderson origins. Each member of Project Unicorn was instantly defined by their special skill and appropriate codename. So, for example Ranger (Mark Conrad), was to have a natural rapport with animals. Our environmentalists’ mode of transport were also reminders of Starwatch‘s puppet show past. The Vulture Equipment Transporter described as a “massively powerful container ship” sounded for all the world like something the Tracey brothers may have used.

The realisation of such ideas would have been expensive and Leach had big plans for Starwatch. He foresaw a budget of about £500,000 for each 50 minute episode (and remember this was 10 years ago), and he looked for the programme to secure a peak time slot on ITV. That Starwatch hoped to secure that family audience, was evident from the inclusion of two pet robots for Professor Caledon. Humanoid in appearance, one cannot help but make comparisons with the likes of R2D2, and of course Buck Rogers‘ Tweeky, particularly when one learns that one of the robots was described as possessing the personality of a child (obtained after a freak accident). This idea was dropped from later versions.

Leach had mapped out an ambitious, long term plan for Starwatch. The threat to Earth was to be tied up at the end of the first series. Future series would then comprise of individual stories “perhaps like Blake’s 7 became”, Leach had said. They were to include space and time travel (using the power of the Sentinel), and the introduction of a regular villain (described by Roland Clarke, one of the production team, as “equivalent to The Master in Doctor Who“). This role was to be taken by Tomek Bork, who would have begun the series as a member of Project Unicorn, only to betray his comrades. Coincidentally, Bork played a traitor in one of the last Doctor Who‘s – “The Curse Of Fenric”.

Leach also promised a high quotient of jeopardy, stating that “all the characters are human – none of them are superhuman; They all get hurt and a lot of them are close to death at times, and that makes it a lot more realistic because you can’t tell if someone’s going to be there next week, and the scripts turn and twist so that you never know what’s coming up next.”

Leach hoped to secure experienced scriptwriters able to produce the quality of writing he had promised. Amongst those lined up to provide scripts for the first series of Starwatch were the aforementioned Terrance Dicks; Mervyn Haisman (again from Doctor Who and best known as co-creator of the infamous Yeti), and Ray Thompson (then script editor of the BBC’s seafaring soap Howard’s Way). The last episode of series one was to be penned by Barry Letts, who Leach much admired, not only for his writing skills, but for his Buddhist sensibilities.

So what happened? Penvellan Productions produced a 15 minute trailer and a handsome booklet, and took the concept around various ITV companies. TVS, in particular showed a great deal of interest, particularly as a lot of the filming was penciled in to take place in Cornwall. Perhaps TVS’ demise at the hands of Meridian spelt the end of the South’s interest in Starwatch. Leach steadfastly refused to pitch the idea to the BBC, as they would require a controlling stake in the project. As for the rest of the ITV companies; there were rumours that other regions had shown an interest, and there were even firm filming dates decided, however, it all came to naught. Maybe the concept wasn’t sufficiently focused, or original enough. Certainly, when describing the central premise behind Starwatch Leach couldn’t help but express it in terms of Blake’s 7, Robin of Sherwood, Doctor Who and Doomwatch. On the one hand, Starwatch was meant be “hard hitting and gritty”, and yet there were unimaginative concessions to juvenilia, those comical robots, and spaceships designed with one eye on the merchandising potential. Add to that a sprinkling of populist environmentalism, and one is left with the feeling that perhaps Starwatch was a bit of a “hotchpotch”.

As time went by Leach modified the concept, moving definitively towards gritty realism. However, aside from a couple of interviews and features in the sci-fi fan press during the summer of ’89, the project would seem to have disappeared without a trace.

In the final analysis, one suspects that a mixture of things killed Starwatch, not least the finance involved in getting such a project off the ground. You only have to look at the recent history of Starwatch‘s most obvious progenitor, which although perhaps the most popular British telefantasy programme of all time, is deemed by the BBC to be too expensive to make without co-funding. What hope then, for the future of high tech, big budget British telefantasy?

In 1990, Penvellan Productions in a sense came clean and made a bid for the rights to produce Doctor Who. They were unsuccessful.

The Sentinel waits.